Copyrights versus rights to access information

Digital or not, the timeless dilemma of intellectual property rights comes from conflicts of different perspectives. From artists’ perspective, protect their rights and make a living to make their arts sustainable. From consumer’s perspective, they want to be able to access information and without constraint. And from government and law enforcement’s perspective, they want to maintain an eco-system that balances the needs of artists and consumers. As National Research Council elegantly put in The Digital Dilemma: Intellectual Property in the Information Age:

“The task of intellectual property protection has always been difficult, attempting as it does to achieve a finely tuned balance: providing authors and publishers enough control over their work that they are motivated to create and disseminate, while seeking to limit that control so that society as a whole benefits from access to the work.”

Although the issue is not exclusively associated with ICT development, many believe digital technology has opening up options for the public to access, reproduce and transmit information and therefore making copyrights protection much trickier than in physical world.

Lessig argues in his book Code and other Laws, that copyrights is not more threatened in cyberspace, on the contrary, it can be more effectively regulated and protected with new technology. For example, using DRM on e-books and music can help the right owner to protect and limit the transmission of their work online. In some level, it’s easier to catch copyright infringement online because of the digital trace it leaves behind.

However, it does not mean this issue has become less complicated. Digital technology is re-shaping the landscape of publication and distribution of copyrighted materials. Netflix, a company started off with DVD rental service, now has become not only the biggest digital distribution platform, but also one of the leading original content providers who got 14 Emmys nomination earlier this year. Last month, Arcade Fire released their new album Reflektor and almost simultaneously it is available for streaming on Spotify.

Because our information consumption behavior has changed so fundamentally, our perception towards the relationship between information and copyright is inevitably changing. With the rise of participatory and Remix culture, the creative process online is increasingly collaborative. Originality is no longer limited to create something from scratch, but also expressed when building upon existing materials. As an example, Hit record is an innovative project actor/director Joseph Gordon-levitt started a few years back, which encourages individuals to upload their work as a source for others to edit, remix and collaborate. Once the work is published (the latest one Tiny Book Vol. 3 features the work of 82 artists our of 35, 905 contributors) everyone gets a fair share.

If you place this issue in the global context it becomes even more complex. In some countries, for political or economic reasons, piracy is the only option available for the public to access certain cultural products. In China, Dakou products (over-produced tapes or CDs dumped from the West to China as plastic rubbish for recycle) not only inspired a whole generation of rock musicians, but also “ushered 1 million Chinese youths into a new wave, a new listening sensibility, a new awareness, a new mind and a new set of values.”[1]

Therefore, now the real issues are: how do we understand intellectual property in the new digital world and how the law reflects that understanding. Lessig also mentioned in Code and other Laws that the optimal protection of intellectual property in cyberspace is a mix of “public law and private fence.” But what’s the perfect formula for it? On the one hand, we have greedy patent trolls attacking even the podcasters who are recording in their basements, but on the other hand, there are also wonderful people who put their work out in the public domain or under “the creative common license.” So where should we draw the line?

It seems we can only start to crack this multilayered problem by taking in every stakeholders’ perspective.


[1] Jeroen de Kloet, “China with a Cut: Globalization, Urban Youth and Popular Music”, Amsterdam University Press (July 15, 2010), 18

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